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Who gets to be a jerk (and why do they want to)?

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When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told graduates at Wellesley College to forget likeability, it made headlines. Not only because when Adichie, a prolific novelist and feminist, speaks people tend to listen, but also because this is not something young women hear often. ‘All over the world, girls are raised to be make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people,’ the Americanah author said at the women’s liberal arts college earlier this month.

Likeability seems to plague any woman who makes herself hyper-visible. Women in politics, entertainment and literature (real or imagined) must live up to a standard of amiability that their male counterparts do not.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, journalist Jerry Useem writes about jerkiness. Prompted by a study out of the University of Amsterdam that puts quantitative evidence behind the axiom ‘nice guys finish last’, ‘Why It Pays to Be a Jerk’ investigates the idea that being nice – or perceived as nice – can be a professional roadblock. Useem dutifully addresses the many possible objections to this theory; that successful jerks like Steve Jobs thrived in spite of their character flaws, not because of them; the power of overconfidence and the significance of context; even the spillover benefits of rudeness: ‘I couldn’t pinpoint why I spent time with [assholes], other than the fact that life seemed larger, grander – like the world was more at your feet – when they were around.’

Only briefly mentioned is the fact that on the rare occasions that being a jerk – even a benevolent jerk – is helpful, it is helpful to only a few. ‘It’s also marginally more likely to fail you, several studies suggest, if you’re a woman,’ Useem writes.

The feature is thorough and engaging. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, data and scientific observation to an idea that is tacitly accepted and reinforced everyday: being nice will get you only so far.

But what should a person make of this advice if it competes with another message that equally reinforced?

For people who exist outside of cis-white maleness, being nice is crucial. When even the most innocuous of asshole behaviour – speaking first versus outright displays of entitlement – is considered unacceptable, being a jerk is rarely a step on the path to professional advancement.

Writing for the Root, Jason Johnson confronts this reality directly, arguing that Useem is writing for white males of the corporate world (and, to an extent, white women who have embraced the philosophy through the ‘Lean In’ movement). ‘In corporate culture, which is so driven by the male ego, stratification and social norms, “assertive” behavior by African Americans – especially men – is not often seen as a positive trait,’ Johnson writes. ‘It’s viewed as disruptive, combative or aggressive.’

Johnson’s observation is a solid one but as with Useem’s piece, it speaks primarily about Black men, highlighting that intersections play a significant role when it comes to labour and choosing between niceness and the jerk.

Useem, Johnson and the studies they cite assume corporate success relies on some degree of asshole behaviour. Adichie also urges the young women at Wellesley to embrace the possibility that they will be unlikeable: ‘Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it.’ What Adichie was not saying, was that young women should worry about being nice.

“Nice” is almost too broad an adjective to have any real meaning; making it, in my opinion, undeserving of the ridicule it receives in the working world. Having gone through years in a highly competitive study program, training in a highly competitive field, I’ve heard more than once that nice doesn’t break stories or get tough journalism assignments. Nice doesn’t snag the hard-to-get interview nor does it get the damning, million-dollar quote. Fair enough. But do abrasive, entitled bullies necessarily have a leg up? Or by “jerks” do we mean persistent and prying? Opinionated and outspoken?

If we’re to dissect what it means to be a jerk and why this is something that should (in moderation and with several caveats) be leveraged to professional success, it seems worth examining why niceness gets such a bad wrap. Maybe it’s because niceness has been so closely linked to femininity and therefore devalued.

Useem lists several characteristics that might prompt someone to be described as nice: they are empathetic; they listen and dole out praise. On the other hand, jerks will interrupt if not speak first and takes what they believe they deserve. In my own experience as a woman, a former journalism student and a Canadian, “nice” has often just meant polite. It’s a shame that any of these traits should be considered inconsistent with competence, especially since young girls and racialised people are socially conditioned to be polite and non-threatening. Conversely, boldness in young boys is reinforced, apparently right into the working world – so much so that the ‘nice guy’ is met with genuine and sometimes justified suspicion.

It’s a trait synonymous with weakness; for some, “nice” means passive, naïve and conceding. This is important when perception is all a potential employer has to go on. ‘The problem with competence is that we can’t judge it by looking at someone,’ writes Useem. ‘So we rely on proxies – superficial cues for competence that we take and mistake for the real thing.’ We accept superficial cues for incompetence as well. A woman faced with a hiring manager who believes her femaleness makes her ‘too nice’ for a leadership role might resort to being unlikeable instead. And even then, her success might be limited.

From Lady Macbeth (and all her reincarnations) to Peggy Olson, pop culture has served up numerous examples of women who rise by exhibiting traditionally male behaviour but are eventually punished for it. In some cases – as with Mad Men’s Olson – that behavior sometimes works only to uphold the system that demanded it in the first place. This says nothing of people who shoulder the expectations that come with several identities at once.

The goal then, is to both take Adichie’s advice and create a working world that does not view niceness as incongruent with leadership but instead values it.  More importantly, these traits should be divorced from sex, gender and race; and the structural inequities that demand one or the other from certain groups, should be dismantled. It’s possible to be both bold and compassionate, to empathise and demand good work, to be persistent and polite. It’s possible to be nice and unlikeable – especially since you might be disliked no matter what you do.

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